Fatigued driving by commercial truckers has been a consistent problem for legislators, law enforcement and motorists alike. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has conducted numerous studies detailing the relationship between sleep deprivation and the incidence of accidents. The FMCSA essentially concludes that the longer a driver is on the road without time to rest (and sleep), the greater the likelihood that he or she will be involved in an accident.
FMCSA Issues New Rule Targeting Fatigued Truck Drivers
When drivers are tired, they tend to drive faster to reach their destinations sooner, their reaction time is slower, and they may not drive safely for the conditions (be it night time, rainy or icy conditions). So, the FMCSA has established rules regarding hours of service (HOS) in an attempt to limit the number of accidents ostensibly caused by driver fatigue.
In fact, new rules were recently released to address safety concerns stemming from distracted driving, time spent by drivers waiting at loading docks and increasing numbers of drivers with health problems behind the rules.
The final rule, released in January, reduces the maximum number of hours a truck driver can work within a week to 70 hours. Under the old rule, drivers could work up to 82 hours within a seven-day period. The rule also prohibits drivers from driving more than eight hours at a time without taking a break of at least 30 minutes. Drivers may take this break at any time during the eight hour window. Additionally, drivers may not drive more than 11 hours each day.
The rule also requires drivers who maximize their weekly allotment of work hours to take at least two nights of rest between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. Drivers may also restart their work week by taking at least 34 consecutive hours off. This restart provision may only be used once during a seven-day period.
In addition to hours of service rules, drivers are required to keep detailed logs regarding their hours behind the wheel. Federal regulations require all drivers to record their hours using either a company issued grid or an electronic device meeting federal requirements.
Truckers Found Disregarding Logs
Even with these rules requiring accurate driving accounts, some trucking companies break the law by maintaining false (or misleading) log books. Falsifying driving logs is hardly a new phenomenon, and several reasons lend to this practice.
First, most drivers are paid by the mile. The more they drive, the more they will get paid. Also, if they have an opportunity for overtime, chances are that they will drive additional hours to make extra money. Second, some drivers may be pressured to meet (or exceed) delivery deadlines. When they are constrained by long wait times at loading docks or highway traffic, drivers are more likely to “fudge” log books in order to stay in their employer’s good graces.
Some drivers may not understand the gravity of keeping accurate driving records, and may not be concerned about future audits. In fact, it is not uncommon for log books to be referred to as “joke books” or “comic books”; thus minimizing the importance of maintaining accurate driving records.
Penalties for Falsifying Driving Logs
Regardless of the motives behind the methods, falsifying driving records is a federal crime. Specifically, the law says in pertinent part that:
"Failure to complete the record of duty activities...failure to preserve a record of such duty activities, or making of false reports in connection with such duty activities shall make the driver and/or the carrier liable to prosecution."
The Office of the Inspector General, in conjunction with the Department of Justice and other state agencies, conducts investigations to determine whether log books were intentionally falsified. A North Carolina trucking company that pled guilty to maintaining false driving record faces the maximum penalty for providing false information to federal investigators: five years in prison, a $250,000 fine, and three years of supervised release.
In addition to criminal prosecution, drivers and their trucking companies could be subject to civil liability if they are involved in accident. Many fatal trucking incidents all across the country, including truck accidents in East Texas, have been caused by a truck driver who was behind the wheel beyond the hours allowed under federal law.
Electronic On-Board Recording Devices
While many companies still use paper log books, others have introduced electronic on-board recording devices (EOBRs) in order to comply with new federal regulations proposed by the FMCSA last year. It sought to impose mandatory use of EOBRs by 2012, citing the need to improve compliance with HOS regulations and to reduce the potential for fatigue related accidents.
However, after a lawsuit filed by the Owner-Operators Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit struck down the rule last August, explaining that FMCSA failed to provide enough detail on how it intends to prevent carriers from harassing drivers through EOBRs. As discussed before, trucking companies are likely to pressure drivers into meeting unlawful (or unrealistic) delivery deadlines, or to work more hours than allowed by federal law.
The three judge panel wrote that the agency must consider the current climate of driver harassment, including how frequently drivers are pressured by their employers and how EOBRs will either allow or prevent such harassment in the future.
The FMCSA is expected to revise its rules in light of the decision, but log book falsification remains a high-profile safety issue.